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All I Really Need to Know About Worship... I Don't Learn from the Regulative Principle (Part X)

When I was recently instructed to take the Nassau Expressway to get my Rebeccah to a certification course, I thought, "Where is the Nassau Expressway? It sounds familiar but I just can't place it."

  • Steve M. Schlissel,
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When I was recently instructed to take the Nassau Expressway to get my Rebeccah to a certification course, I thought, "Where is the Nassau Expressway? It sounds familiar but I just can't place it."

It turns out that it was the first road listed on a sign near Kennedy Airport, a sign which I had passed thousands of times. But because I had never needed to take that particular thoroughfare, I had never paid any attention to the first line.

Our ability not to see what is right in front of us for want of really looking is a well-known fact of experience. In this series on worship we have been attempting to point out that there are a great many things in Scripture which, it seems, regulativists have overlooked, things which negate the proposition that the Regulative Principle of Worship is an adequate principle to govern worship in the New Order ushered in by Christ's completed work. We have been pleading with those who tenaciously hold to the RPW - if it is not commanded, expressly or by good and necessary consequence, it is forbidden — to consider if they may have missed lines on the sign, lines which would redirect them in their search for the actual will of God on this matter.

We began by expressing our sympathy for the RPW. Like other extreme remedies, it offered a sort of relief. The teetotaler is preferred to the drunk, the prig to the strumpet. But these are not our only choices when we consider all that the Scripture says. Temperate use of alcohol is permitted by God, no matter how much it might be abused by the weak and/or foolish. Adornment is permitted to women regardless of how many brazen trollops give make-up a bad name. The wrong use of a thing does not disprove the propriety of its moderate, fit use.

So also, the Scriptures, taken in sum, simply do not teach that unless God has commanded a thing, it may not be done in worship. The RPW may be an effective shortcut to a desirable sort of worship service, but when it pretends to be God's own definitive word on the matter it must be reined in. And there is no better way to rein in errant theologies than to look at the whole Word of God. For it seems my regulativist brethren were looking only at the lines on the sign that they thought pertained to them. They ignored, to a greater or lesser degree, the rest. And we have merely been seeking to point out some of "the rest" in this series.

The first thing we did was pull the camera back from their favorite texts. We discovered that their so-called proof texts were consistently isolated from meaning-impacting contexts.

Next we explained how the real RPW governed only centralized Temple worship in the Old Testament and was never the rule — before or after Sinai — for decentralized sacred assemblies. Similarly, in the New Order, it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is strictly regulated, not sacred assemblies.

We demonstrated that regulativists fail to account fairly for an abundance of so-called "man-made" worship elements found in Scripture which God regarded as benign or fine.

And we looked at some of the failures of regulativism which would, if applied consistently, leave the New Order churches songless and with other pitiable maladies.

In short, we sought to measure the Regulative Principle against the standard of God's Word. It was measured and found wanting. In what might be considered a corroborating proof of our thesis, no cogent, coherent refutation of this evidence has been offered. Of course, this does not mean that one could not be offered, but we have not seen it. Instead, we have been treated to tomes which tell us how terrible Steve Schlissel is. But we thought that was an incontrovertible fact. Otherwise, we could have proven that proposition to your satisfaction and proven it sooner, more fully, and with abundant examples and illustrations. We just didn't think that was the issue under discussion.

When You Assume. . .

The issue under discussion has been the Regulative Principle of Worship - if it is not commanded, it is forbidden. And, as we've said before, our colleagues on the other side of the aisle seem unable to argue for it without first assuming it and dismissing any and all of the abundant Biblical or historical evidence which goes against it. They are like the trawlermen who, after boasting that their net caught all kinds of fish, were shown several varieties their net had missed. "Oh, those ain't really fish!" they replied.

Regulativists 1) assume the RPW in Bible history even when it isn't found, 2) assume it in the Westminster Confession when it isn't uniformly applied in the appended Directory of Worship, 3) assume it in the Law when it's not what the Law says, and 4) assume it in all Reformed churches when it isn't what all Reformed churches have held. As the famous preacher, Jerry Lee Lewis, once (sort of) said, "There's a whole lot of assumin' goin' on."

Our first example of this assuming behavior: In our treatment of the question, we considered the glaring fact that there are no commands in the Bible concerning the elements of worship to be employed in the synagogue, an institution recognized by most as providing the organizational foundation of the Christian churches. If, as the regulativists claim, sacred assemblies may do only what God has commanded to be done, and if there are no discernible inscripturated commands telling Israel what they may do in sacred assemblies, then Israel (if RPW-compliant) was permitted, in fact, to do nothing in the synagogues.1

Feeling the weight (if not the power) of this argument, regulativists, unable to find inscripturated commands governing the elements of synagogue worship, resort to assumptions. Their response has been uniform: Since we cannot find where God has commanded what was to take place in sacred assemblies, but since the RPW must be true no matter what, therefore God must have told some prophet how to organize the worship in the synagogue.

Now just hold on to their assertion a moment and add to it another. Regulativists have argued that "the regulative principle grows out of the sola scriptura rule of Protestant theology." Never mind that they run around in a circle here, assuming that the RPW is God's mind revealed in Scripture on the matter (while it most certainly is not). I wish only to draw your attention to their claim that the RPW and sola scriptura are organically linked.

Those who hold to the Informed Principle of Worship — if it is not commanded, it might be permitted: it depends — account for the synagogue without resorting to sleight of hand. IPW-ists find no command, other than one which requires synagogues, or decentralized sacred assemblies, to exist (Lev. 23:3). The elements employed therein would and did develop within the bounds of revealed scriptural principles as understood by the covenant community. No explicit command was required. Sola scriptura stands firm.

But how do regulativists imagine themselves as supporting the doctrine of sola scriptura when they argue that the synagogue elements must have been revealed in some non-inscripturated source? In fact, what they very clearly do here is negate the doctrine of "Scripture alone" by making their system dependent upon an uninscripturated word. They postulate a word which was supposedly given to govern the synagogue service, a word we know nothing about, a word that is merely assumed to have been. And clearly the only reason they insist that it must have been given is because, as always, they start out with their principle, not the Bible, as the unchallengeable given and then seek to force the Bible to conform to it. If it's not in the Bible, they'll invent an authoritative tradition that surely must have said what they think should have been said in the Bible.

This whole line of reasoning is hauntingly familiar to me. Let me tell you where I've heard it: In the Jewish "proofs" for the necessity of the Oral Law. Listen carefully to those a bit more self-conscious in their denial of sola scriptura:

At Exodus 35:3 —"You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day"— the Stone Edition of the Torah contains this note: "The Torah can be understood only as it is interpreted by the Oral Law, which God taught to Moses, and which he transmitted to the nation. The Oral Law makes clear that only the creation of a fire and such use of it as cooking and baking are forbidden, but there is no prohibition against enjoying its light and heat." A shot is then taken at Jews who have suggested that the Bible, as given, is sufficient: "Deviant sects that deny the teaching of the Sages [i.e., the Oral Law - sms] misinterpreted this passage ... they sat in spiritual darkness all their lives."

Meyer Waxman, in The History of Jewish Literature, argues that the traditions of the Scribes as recorded in the Oral Law were not "new additions, but merely an unfolding of the contents of the Law." He believes, like the regulativists, that the Law itself implicitly requires the positing of an Oral Law. Waxman says:

As an illustration of the insufficiency of the Written Law, if taken literally, and that if it was practiced, it must necessarily have been supplemented... we will cite [the following example]. The injunction that one who desecrates the Sabbath is [to be] punished by death is repeated several times, but nowhere is there a definition given as to what is meant by the term, work. Only three kinds of labor are specified, kindling of fire (Ex. 35:3), walking beyond a certain limit (Ex. 16:29), and cording or hewing of wood (Numb. 15:32-36). But, it is self-evident that there are hundreds of forms of labor which fall under the term work. How then could the Sabbath be observed without any supplementary instruction as to what constitutes work and what not? Undoubtedly, such instructions and supplements have existed from the very time of the giving of the Law, and they were included in the Mosaic Oral Law.

It seems never to have occurred to those who hold this Jewish view that God's mind might, in deed and in fact, have been adequately revealed in the very generality of the prohibitions and that He has neither requested nor required such detailed supplementation.

Now You See It, Now You Don't

So too, the regulativists. The idea that God had not given inspired, explicit instructions concerning what was to be done in the synagogue is simply unimaginable to them. But while both the orthodox Jews and the regulativists treat the Word of God as insufficient, only the Jews admit it. The regulativists introduce the idea of uninscripturated commands as a deus ex machina.

2 But by so doing, they undermine their own principles while they beg their own questions. And, instead of supporting sola scriptura, they lead us to ask if what we have now might best be regarded as a Vestigial Bible, those former revelations having somehow fallen away.

At this point, perhaps we can begin to see how easily regulativism can become yet another body for the spirit of the Pharisees3 to inhabit. Dr. J. Douma's analysis of the Sabbath controversy between the Pharisees and our Lord4 provides to-the-point insight. The Pharisees were dissatisfied with God's general command forbidding work. Ultimately, the Mishna would provide 39 discrete categories of forbidden labor. This desire for exhaustive control of the covenant people has its mirror in the RPW which (ostensibly) forbids anything not commanded.

"Without a doubt," says Dr. Douma - whom I will quote freely in this section —"underlying the extensive work of the scribes was a deep-seated respect for the Sabbath." So also, underlying the intentions of regulativists is a deep-seated respect for the corporate worship of the Triune God. Would that all God's people would yearn after God-centered, God-glorifying worship! The danger, of course, is when, in the pursuit of a noble end, one displaces or distorts, according to the dictates of man, Scripture's actual words. As in the case of the RPW, so in the case of the Pharisaical Sabbath, "Not Scripture, but the tradition of the 'ancients,' functioned authoritatively." Here we need to listen carefully to Dr. Douma:

Within a detailed casuistry, it is no longer possible to quiet one's hunger on the Sabbath by plucking heads of grain in a grain field. For whoever picks a head of grain is busy harvesting [one of the 39 forbidden categories of labor], and whoever rubs that head of grain between his fingers is busy threshing [another forbidden category]. Someone who healed a man on the Sabbath, as Jesus did, was performing work that could have waited until the following day. Someone who picked up his mattress and walked away with it, after he had been healed, was making himself guilty of Sabbath desecration because he was carrying a burden on the Sabbath from one place to another.

So, too, the regulativist sifts through his artificial grid any element of worship for which he can find no authorizing command. "No 'man-made' hymns!" he cries, suggesting that the corporate singing of "All Glory Be to Thee, Most High" is unmitigated effrontery. "No musical instruments!" he demands, calling their employment in any form indulgent sensuality and carnality. "No this, no that, no the other. God approves only what we say He approves, no matter what He might say to the contrary!"

". . . But Not For Me"

As Douma noted:

Jesus condemned this casuistry [regarding the Sabbath]. Although it can be dressed in clothes of piety, it can nonetheless be a form of hypocrisy. What people withhold from others (permission to work, for example) they grant to themselves.

As we have seen, regulativists grant to themselves the right to sing in worship when such can be easily controverted on their principles. But beyond that, the RPW, despite its apparent simplicity, is ultimately like the Mishna: arbitrary in what it permits or forbids. For good and necessary consequence is, in the end, a measure which exists mainly in the mind of the beholder.

Even in the vaunted Directory for the Publick Worship of God of the Westminster Assembly — a perfectly lovely order of worship, on our principles — we discover numerous requirements which can claim justification neither by express command nor by necessary consequence. One can account for this anomaly by suggesting that the Westminster Divines did not intend to teach the Regulative Principle, or that they found it inconvenient or impossible to apply.5 In any case, there is certainly "room" for those who subscribe to the Westminster Standards to challenge the proposition that subscription requires strict adherence to the rule: if it is not commanded to be performed in worship, it is forbidden.

For in the preface to the Directory for Publick Worship, the divines use the language of the Informed Principle, stating that their "care hath been to hold forth such things as are of divine institution in every ordinance; and other things we have endeavoured to set forth according to the rules of Christian prudence, agreeable to the general rules of the word of God."

Consider what my Presbyterian friend, Chris Coldwell, has to say about the Directory's authority: "The Directory was approved by 'Act of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland'... The Government of Scotland approved and established the Directory three days later. Thus the Directory for Worship was actually more widely authorized than the Confession of Faith, or Larger Catechism, which never received the assent of the English Parliament. It represents the approved views regarding worship of not only the Assembly, but of the governments of England and Scotland, as well as the Church of Scotland."

Fine. Let me cite two areas in the Directory — the first a bit lengthy (dealing with Christian baptism), the second quite brief (dealing with Scripture reading) — where the Westminster divines forsake the standard which requires command (RPW) and embrace the standard of agreement with the general rules of the Word (IPW). Some have recently said that "all Protestants hold to the Regulative Principle." I disagree. Many, no doubt, hold to it pro forma, but in practice it is another matter. The Directory for Worship suggests that, behind the rhetoric, all Reformed people actually hold to the IPW. Witness:

First, the administration of Christian baptism is saddled in the Directory with requirements neither commanded in Scripture nor the result of good and necessary consequence. We'll focus on two requirements (man-made impositions?) which we find particularly noteworthy, especially for their being found in the Directory for Worship of the supposedly strictest of the RPW-leaning confessions.

The Directory's rule is that baptism must be performed by a minister. Yet this does not comport with Scripture. Thus its origin is in man, i.e., in a human tradition. The Old Testament antecedent, circumcision, did not require the rite to be performed by someone specially called.6 Zipporah's circumcision of her and Moses' son was valid. God Himself approved of it and accepted it (Ex. 4:25, 26).

The same unconcern with administrators is true in the New Testament. Kistemaker, commenting on the baptism of Cornelius's household in Acts 10:48, is unafraid to accept the obvious: "Peter, as the Greek text implies, orders the . . . Jewish Christians to baptize the Gentile converts." These Jewish Christians were simply "some of the brothers" (Ac. 10:23) — the common term — not "some other ministers." The apostle apparently regarded these ordinary, male Jewish Christians as covenantally competent to perform the rite of baptism. "The apostles, then, place the emphasis not on themselves but on the name of Jesus." Barnes agrees, explaining that "it seems not to have been the practice of the apostles themselves to baptize very extensively." J. A. Alexander is forceful on this point: "It can scarcely be a mere fortuitous coincidence, that Peter, Paul, and Christ himself, should all have left this rite to be administered by others. 'Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples' (Jn. 4:2). 'I thank God that I baptized none of you, save Crispus, etc.' (1 Cor. 1:14). 'Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel' (ib. v. 17)."

Baptisms were performed under the apostles' supervision, but not necessarily by their hands. Such was obviously good enough for Peter and Paul, but not for the Westminster Assembly.

Perhaps the stalwarts of the Faith who composed the Standards really were, in the last analysis, practitioners of the Informed — not the Regulative — Principle of Worship. "If it is not commanded, it might be permitted: It depends!" The idea is plausible.

For the Directory further requires that baptism be performed as part of Christian worship services. It insists that baptism is not "to be administered in private places, or privately, but in the places of public worship, and in the face of the congregation . . ." Here, contrary to their alleged principle, they add an element to worship. Where is it commanded in Scripture that baptism is to be performed during a public worship service? Nowhere. Then perhaps we can find examples of such which would constitute "good and necessary consequence"?

Alas, no. In the case of circumcision, the antecedent of Christian baptism, there is not a trace of evidence that God required it to be performed either in the Temple or in the synagogue. And as for baptism itself, in the instances found in the New Testament, none is performed in what we would call or recognize as a worship service. The three thousand on the Day of Pentecost were baptized in conjunction with, at most, an evangelistic meeting, not a worship service. The same is true of the Samaritans in Acts 8. Saul was not baptized at a worship service but at the house of Judas on Straight Street by Ananias (a "mere" disciple, by the way — Acts 9:10 — not a "minister"). Cornelius's family was baptized in his house without benefit of its being part of a "worship service." The Philippian jailer was certainly not baptized in a worship service. Lydia was baptized after hearing the message at a prayer meeting. (Such Prayer meetings were substitutes for worship services, Jewish traditions requiring that worship services not be performed with less than ten men.) Crispus (Acts 18:8) was baptized after a worship service.

Baptism tied to evangelistic meetings? Perhaps. Prayer meetings? Maybe. Homes? Sure. Church worship services? No. One might even reasonable conclude from the Scripture's evidence that on had to be baptized outside the church service in order to gain the right to enter. Yet the Directory forbids baptism from occurring any place except a church service! Hardly very RPW-ish. After all, there was no need for such an "intrusion upon the consciences of God's people." There was a ready work-around available.

For just as regulativists believe all Christian children ought to be catechized, yet don't require (or allow!) that catechizing to be done in worship services, so they could have easily demanded that all Christian children (and other fit candidates) be baptized in public but without adding the requirement that it be done in public worship. In fact, on their principle they ought to forbid that it be brought into a worship service since it is lacking in Divine command.(7) Most regulativists allow hymn-singing and instruments in private worship,(8) excluding them from corporate worship only because these elements, they say, are not commanded to be enjoyed therein. They should do the same with baptism, if they believed their principle. Now in my mind's ear I can hear my regulativist brothers groaning, "That's ridiculous!" Why is it any more ridiculous to exclude baptism than to exclude hymns if the basis for inclusion is express warrant or approved example?

Already we can begin to see that, while many at that great Assembly may well have held in principle to the RPW, in practice they — like a very great number of Reformed churches since the Reformation — were clearly governed by the covenantal freedom expressed in the Informed Principle of Worship.(9) Perhaps it's time to let the cat out of the bag: there are no “strict regulativists” in pratice. And the 57 varieties of those who claim to be such only prove that it is, at bottom, a subjective principle.

Regulate as We Say, Not as We Do

Second, the Directory dictates, “It is requisite [required, necessary, indispensable — sms] that all the canonical books be read over and in order . . . and, ordinarily, where the reading in either Testament endeth on one Lord's day, it is to begin the next.” No one should deny that this, like baptizing during worship, is a fine practice — if a church so chooses it. But where in Scripture has God commanded this? From what might this “requirement” be deduced as necessary? How does this differ from the use of, say, Scripture songs (non-Psalms) being made requisite in worship, a practice condemned by “strict” RPW-ites? The sons of Westminster who insist on a strict RPW must be forced to admit that such a strict principle was not in their foundational documents taken as a whole. The Directory, after all, required that the main prayer occur before the sermon, a requirement for which there can be found no command in Scripture.

But it seems that even strict regulativists allow to themselves what they deny to others: freedom to employ covenantal good sense. As Douma said, “And what else can you expect? Legalism always lives in tension with the normal development of life and sooner or later will shipwreck on the realistic and wholesome demands of practicality.”

What the Pharisees did to the Sabbath, regulativists often do to worship. “The attitude [of the Pharisees] robbed the Sabbath of its characteristic gratitude for liberation. Gratitude had to make way for precisionist obedience, freedom was replaced with a new bondage.” If you have any doubt how accommodating the RPW-flesh is to the Pharisee-spirit, it will be dispelled when you read its most consistent advocates.

Ignorange of the Law Is No Excuse

Several regulativist brethren have sought to teach me that the critical point in this debate is the Second Commandment. “The Second Commandment,” they claim, “is where the Regulative Principle is not only taught, but carved in stone as an eternal rule for the worship of the church.”

Okay. Let’s look at the Second Commandment. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or anylikeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."

Where is the RPW here? I do not see it. The commandment forbids making images. It seems to me that discovering the R PW here is at best a bit ticklish. First, the RPW claims to govern corporate worship. Would the regulativist suggest that this command’s scope is limited to corporate worship, that it is okay to make idols for use outside of corporate worship? Of course not. But would the regulativist then ask that this command be applied exhaustively so as to exclude the making of any image whatsoever for use in any area of life? Would the regulativist suggest that all sculpture, all painting, all photography, all image-containing adornment, is excluded by this command? Of course not. God Himself commanded various “images” and representations to be made, even for use in Tabernacle/Temple worship [Ex. 26:1; 28:33; 37:7ff.; etc.)!

In the first case, the regulativist concedes that the command is not limited to corporate worship. In the second, he concedes that it does not absolutely prohibit images. Sounds IPW-ish so far. How then does this command support the Regulative Principle of Worship? Perhaps he is thinking of the exposition of the Second Commandment in the Heidelberg Catechism? There we read:

Q 96. What does God require in the Second Commandment?
A 96. That we in no way make any image of God, nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded us in His Word.

So far so good. The question then becomes, “Just how has God commanded in His Word that He be worshipped?” I answer, “He has forbidden certain things, as this commandment, among other texts, proves. He has also commanded that He be approached only through His own provided atonement. He has also given us many principles which serve as borders within which we may freely employ faithful, covenantal sense, taking into consideration always the general rules of the Word.” That is how He has commanded that He be worshipped.

The regulativist, however, answers by saying, “God’s will is that if He has not commanded a thing, it is forbidden.” But where does he find that in the Second Commandment? He does not. He has obviously first assumed it and then imposed it.

In fact, what the Second Command does — and this might be a shock to some — is to forbid idolatry and the use of images as representations of God or as objects of worship. Most humble readers of the Bible would conclude this without help.

Indeed, this simple truth has not been lost in our Reformed tradition. Dr. Nelson Kloosterman has brought to my attention “G. Veotius’ two-volume treatment (compendium, really) on the Heidelberg Catechism. In his five-page question-and-answer exposition of Heidelberg #96, Voetius nowhere discusses ‘the RPW,’ but rather focuses on why and for what purpose God forbade images of Himself as worship aids. In Voetius, we find page after page about the idolatry of Papists, Jews, and Mohammedans, page after page about the superstitious ceremonies and rituals of Romanists, but no exposition about ‘what is not commanded is forbidden.’ (You’ll notice the same lacuna with regard to ‘the RPW’ in Herman Hoeksema’s Triple Knowledge.)”

I might add that you’ll find it, too, in Dr. Douma’s treatment of the Second Commandment and, indeed, in most places where the R PW has not first been assumed.

Flip-Flopping' Away

Moreover, the regulativist has not generally proven himself faithful to the flip-side of his principle. Many examples could be given, but let's be brief. If God forbids in worship all that He has not commanded, may we not rightly assume, following regulativist-style reasoning, that He requires in worship all He has commanded? If it is God's will that only Psalms be used in worship, does He require that we sing all the Psalms? I f so, during what period of time should they be completed? Once in every service? Month? Year? Never?

This is not as ridiculous a question as one might suppose. Many Jews, for example, do indeed typically recite the entire Psalter (very often performed by heart, I might add) at least once, and in some cases thirteen or more times, in any given year. It seems that the Jews, by this practice, trump the regulativists who well may sing only Psalms but not all the Psalms, at least not each year. And what about men being commanded to “lift up holy hands” in prayer? This, of course, they reduce to a “circumstance” that does not have to be obeyed. And what about greeting one another with a holy kiss? Here we find a command issued four times over to the churches of Christ. Greet one another with a holy kiss. Greet one another with a holy kiss. Greet one another with a holy kiss. Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. (Rom.l6:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thes. 5:26.) Do regulativists obey it? Their principle becomes very flexible when it causes them social discomfort, it seems. Or else their principle is extremely arbitrary, wouldn't you say? Meticulously excluding what they can't find commanded, while excluding much that is commanded.

And we haven't even mentioned the explicit command not to forbid speaking in tongues. I've yet to hear tongues employed in an RPW church (a fact which should move us all to rejoice).(10) No, the RPW is profoundly inadequate if advanced as the rule to govern worship in the churches. The point is they want to invert the Second Commandment (saying it forbids what is not commanded when all it says is that what is forbidden may not be done) but they won't flip their own principle (by saying that what is commanded must be done).

Allow me just one more flip-flop illustration, please. In Answer 99 (part 4) of the Westminster Larger Catechism, we read as a rule for interpreting the commandments, “where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and, where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is commanded.” Now let's apply that to the Second Commandment. We are forbidden to bow down to idols. Is it not then commanded that we do bow down to the Lord? But regulativists do not bow down in their worship services. I remind you that such an omission is perfectly acceptable if we are governed by the IPW, but I cannot understand its absence in R PW churches. What is the excuse? That the architecture and layout of the churches make it inconvenient? Then change the architecture. Islamic worship, you surely know, requires bowing down and their worship centers are built to accommodate their practice. R PW advocates should do the same. Is it just a circumstance of worship, a (convenient) category which provides latitude in compliance? Then why not do the same for instruments or hymns? Where is the list in Scripture which tells us which things are flexible “circumstances” and which are fixed “elements”? The word “humbug” comes to mind. Thus, when we peek inside R PW churches we see therein not only the supposed exclusion of things not commanded, we find the actual exclusion of things certainly commanded.

I trust you are able to see just how impossible it is to accept the proposition that the Regulative Principle of Worship — if it is not commanded, explicitly or by good and necessary consequence, it is forbidden in worship — is an adequate rule reflecting Scripture's actual teaching. And understand this, I beg you: I f the R PW is presented as anything but a stand-alone, fully adequate rule, it is not the R PW you are looking at. For once a man says there are other considerations besides what is stated in the RPW, he has embraced the IPW: I f it is not commanded, it might he permitted. It depends. (See 1 Cor. 10:23.) This is an important point because many, legion, are they who want to continue using the title “regulativist,” but who, in fact, do not believe the Regulative Principle as historically received. Such posturing is not helpful. Well could Rev. John van Popta (of the Canadian Reformed Churches) complain to a “strict” regulativist:

What do you understand to be the practical working out of “what is not commanded is forbidden”? What has been commanded? Is silent prayer in the worship service commanded? If not, is itforbidden? May there be a call to worship? Is the votum commanded? The salutation? The blessing? Or are these only because of good and proper inference? The (infamous) handshake (of many Reformed churches), has it been commanded? And if not should I tell my elders that we must cease and desist forthwith for we are engaged in self-styled worship? Are liturgical forms for baptism, and the Lord's Supper commanded? Should office-bearers be ordained in a worship service? Where are the commands for this? The list could go on. I think that the RPW “strictly applied” is a wraith and a phantom that has no reality in history.
  1. Some have suggested that what the synagogue did/offered was not properly called “worship” at all, thus thrusting us back to the Temple as our only legitimate model for “worship.” I would ask those entertaining such a notion: Is your church ruled by priests or by elders? Are these assisted by Levites or by deacons? Is the order of service built around recurring sacrifices and ceremonial washings or around the reading/preaching/hearing of the Word of God? Is there an altar or a pulpit? Is there an area into which no one ordinarily may enter? Is there a separate section for women? A separate section for those outside the covenant? What's that you say? You have elder-supervised, deacon-aided, Word-centered, family-oriented, and inviting worship? Well, welcome to synagogue “worship” — or whatever you care to call it. For in the last analysis, suggesting that the synagogue and Reformed church services are not “worship” leads to little more than word-wrangling. On that, see 2 Timothy 2:14. It is also worth noting that Scripture reading itself was not part of the Temple service at all before the Babylonian period, and is not commanded to be an element of Temple service in Scripture, as far as I know. Note further that prayer was, at best, a very minor part of the Temple service, and what was commanded was given in the form of rote, liturgical — not spontaneous — prayer. The Temple doesn't really help in the quest for a stand-alone Biblical worship model for the church.
  2. One difference: the regulativists invent these missing texts only here and only to escape this one dilemma. Another difference: the Jews claim to be able to show us the “texts” as (now written) Oral Law. Regulativists make no such claim.
  3. Let me quickly add two notes, a) The Pharisees were by no means all bad, and b) I am not merely hurling epithets here but rather seeking to make a valid comparison. I hope this will become evident.
  4. In his The Ten Commandments: A Manualfor the Christian Life (Translated by Dr. Nelson Kloosterman). A must-own volume, available from Westminster Discount Books, (914) 472-2237.
  5. Since we have seen our views (no doubt inadvertently) misrepresented before, let us be careful to say here that we hold the Westminster Standards in very high esteem. We have taught the Shorter Catechism to our children and the Confession of Faith to adults in our various ministries. We do not, however, receive them as perfect. Nor do we judge them to be as excellent as the Three Forms of Unity. The latter we regard to be superior in approach and style, if not in content (at certain points). We luxuriate, though, in being blessed to have access and recourse to both sets of documents. In a few instances, if truth be told, the Westminster Standards do seem to attempt to say more than they should. One place this overstepping is evident is in their pleading the RPW in the Confession. When they go on to employ the IPW in the Directory, their border violation becomes evident.
  6. Remember that the IPW allows for certain human traditions if they are in agreement with the general rules of the Word.
  7. For the record, the Informed Principle of Worship offers no objection to ministers performing baptisms in regular worship services.
  8. Some will not. When I asked this question on a forum I received this reply: “Yes, I do believe that a strict regulativist believes that the same rules apply to corporate, family, and private worship. Therefore I do only sing Psalms in corporate and family and private worship without instruments.” Those who hold this view must regard Hannah (Hannah's Song) and Mary (the Magnificat) as sinful will-worshippers. Interesting.
  9. I ought to mention that I preferred calling it The Reformed Principle of Worship, but passed on it for two reasons. One, while the IPW certainly is indicative of the principle employed by many Reformed, as opposed to Presbyterian, churches, it would plainly be untrue to say that the IPW is identical to the Reformed philosophy of worship. There is more than one Reformed version of worship, in my judgment. I have no wish to even breathe the suggestion that my brothers who disagree with me are not Reformed. Second, the initials would be the same, making shorthand difficult.
  10. Of course there are good theological/historical reasons to exclude tongues. But the use of such reasoning comports well with the Informed Principle, not the RPW. For RPW-ites reject good theological/historical reasons to sing non-Psalms, citing only the alleged absence of a command for justification. With each instance of arbitrariness, their principle can be seen to decrease in value.

  • Steve M. Schlissel

Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children  and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.

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